Most drinking water in the U.S. is contaminated by PFAS; here’s what you can do about it — High Country News
On March 14, for the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed federal drinking water standards for PFAS, a group of long-lasting, ubiquitous chemicals that are toxic even at extremely low levels. Public health experts have applauded the proposal — which marks the first time the agency has updated drinking water standards at all since 2001 — though it faces opposition from chemical companies and some utilities as it heads toward a public comment period. If the regulation is finalized on schedule in late 2023, it’s expected to trigger upgrades in water systems nationwide to filter out these man-made “forever chemicals.”
Per- and polyfluoralkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS, are designed to be slippery, waterproof and non-stick — properties that make them widely useful. But the EPA has known for at least two decades that the chemicals are dangerous. More recently, nationwide monitoring of public water supplies and human blood samples has shown that PFAS pollution is far more widespread than previously known, and not just from the factories that make them, but also from the industrial sites, airports and military bases that use them. A 2021 analysis by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group estimated that more than 2,400 drinking water systems serving almost two-thirds of the people living in the U.S. are contaminated — a number that’s growing as more communities test their water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that nearly every person in the U.S. has already accumulated PFAS in their blood via drinking water, food, dust and consumer products.
This year, the EPA will begin testing every large water system in the country for 29 PFAS, using more sensitive methods than existed in 2013-15, the last time it tested. “It’s not going to be surprising that many systems that didn’t think they had a problem are going to find out they do,” said Elizabeth Southerland, a former top official at the EPA’s Office of Water, who retired in 2017. Those findings, along with growing federal and state efforts to regulate PFAS in drinking water and beyond, could cost Western communities millions of dollars to address, though doing so will provide lasting health benefits.
PFAs are widely known as “forever chemicals,” due to their persistence in the environment and the human body. All PFA molecules include a chain of carbon and fluorine atoms, and the bonds that link those elements are one of the strongest chemical bonds; they do not break down in the environment and can take many years to leave the human body.
PFAS have been manufactured since the 1940s for their non-stick, waterproof and stain-resistant properties. One, called PFOS, was an ingredient in Scotchgard until 3M stopped using it in 2002. Another, PFOA, was used to make Teflon until DuPont phased it out in 2013. At least 9,000 others are still common in fabrics, cosmetics, food packaging, personal care products and firefighting foam. A 2022 study by the environmental health advocacy nonprofit Toxic-Free Future found PFAS in 72% of products labeled as water- or stain-resistant, including raincoats, mattress pads, tablecloths, hiking pants and more.
PFOA and PFOS — two of the most studied PFAS chemicals — are both “long-chain PFAS.” Neither are produced in the U.S. anymore; chemical giants agreed to phase them out by 2015, but they remain pervasive in the environment. Short-chain PFAS, which are strung together with fewer carbon atoms, have become common substitutes. Public health experts say they degrade faster, but are so common in consumer products that their concentrations in the environment, drinking water and human bloodstreams are alarming. “You’re constantly dosing yourself with them,” Southerland said. “And it turns out they also have toxic effects.”
Research made public in the early 2000s showed links between PFOA in drinking water and kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis. Those effects — along with allegations that chemical companies had tried to cover them up — first came to light when environmental attorney Robert Bilott sued DuPont on behalf of 70,000 West Virginians who had been drinking water contaminated by PFOA, a chemical that the EPA had never even heard of. Bilott, however, proved the company knew it was unsafe, in a case that was detailed in his memoir, Exposure, and in the 2019 film Dark Waters.
Research since then on PFOA and other PFAS has shown that they have an even wider range of effects on the entire human body, not just one system: Low birth weights, developmental issues, a weakened response to vaccines in children, and more serious bouts of COVID-19 have all been linked to PFAS, even with extremely low exposure.
A 2022 EPA health advisory recommended a maximum of 0.004 parts per trillion of PFOA in drinking water, and 0.02 ppt for PFOS. One part per trillion is equivalent to a single drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools: Split that drop into 1,000 pieces, and if just four are PFOA or 20 are PFOS, they are dangerous. The EPA’s newest proposal goes even further, setting goals of zero: No amount is considered safe.
The EPA proposal sets enforceable standards of 4 ppt each for PFOA and PFOS.
That’s higher than its own health advisories, but it’s the lowest level considered enforceable, based on testing limitations. The agency believes it’s achievable using filtration technology that some East Coast utilities have used for years.
The new regulation also creates a hazard index for a mix of four other common PFAS, a tool that addresses the cumulative effects of those chemicals. Public health advocates say it’s a groundbreaking step toward someday regulating PFAS as a class, rather than individually. Such regulations would account for the fact that many of these chemicals occur simultaneously, and together can amount to more than individual limits. It would also shorten the time required to regulate them one by one, a process that can take nearly a decade.
If implemented, the proposed standards will require upgrades to water systems nationwide. In Washington state, a Seattle Times analysis showed that about a dozen systems have recorded PFAS over the state’s limits, standards set in 2021 that include 10 ppt for PFOA and 15 ppt for PFOS. More than 50 systems are over the proposed federal limits. The Vancouver, Washington, water system, which serves 260,000 people, faces some of the highest upgrade costs in the state: Five of the city’s nine water stations have tested over the state limits, and treating them would cost $170 million. All but one of the city’s stations would require filtration under the EPA’s proposed limits.
Considering the public health cost savings, however, the benefits of the new standards “dwarf the costs of achieving them,” Southerland said. They’d have added benefits, too: The same filtration that reduces PFAS also cuts other contaminants.
Lawmakers set aside $9 billion in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to help communities reduce PFAS and other chemicals in their drinking water systems. And a number of states, including California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Alaska, have sued manufacturers, demanding polluters pay for water treatment.
If you’re on a municipal water system, check with your utility company; as pressure for testing grows, some are reporting their own levels. Many large water systems were evaluated during the EPA’s 2013-2015 testing, but contamination in smaller systems — which includes most tribal utilities — has been far less documented.
In states where PFAS are already regulated by state laws, including California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, New Mexico and Alaska, information is being reported on various state, municipal and utility websites, but many utilities have several years to comply with new testing rules. If the EPA’s proposal is finalized this year, all public water systems will need to test and report PFAS levels starting in 2026.
If you have a well or just want the water coming out of your tap individually tested, you can do so at state-approved labs, though this can cost hundreds of dollars.
People on private wells or public systems not yet filtering out PFAS can use a variety of common home filters to reduce the chemicals, though health experts emphasize that these systems require regular maintenance and filter changes to stay effective. Research from Duke University and the University of North Carolina has shown that under-sink reverse osmosis and two-stage filters work best, removing at least 94% of the PFAS researchers tested for. They found that many activated carbon filters in pitcher, refrigerator and faucet-mounted styles also reduced levels, but to a widely varying degree. Several of the whole-house activated carbon systems they tested actually made levels worse.
Those at higher risk include people who are pregnant or nursing, children under 10, anyone who already has high cholesterol or liver, kidney, or immune disorders, and people exposed to high levels of other contaminants.
“I don’t like to advocate for things that put the burden on the individual when they should really be tackled at the state or federal drinking water system level,” said Anna Reade, the lead PFAS scientist at the nonprofit National Resource Defense Council. For many communities, however, testing and treatment are still years away. And Reade believes that no level of PFOA or PFOS is safe: “If I found it in my home,” she said, “I would treat for it.”
Sarah Trent is an editorial intern for High Country News based in southwest Washington. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.
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